By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Morning and evening/ Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,/Come buy, come buy….
– Goblin Market
Christina Rossetti’s 1859 fantasy Goblin Market, a piece of Victorian erotica which has got to be one of the weirdest poems of the 19th century, conjures a world of temptation, seduction, appetite, addiction — and redemption by sisterly love.
There’s a whole catalogue of musicals, operas, operettas, chamber duets (not to mention the odd Playboy “concept” spread) inspired by Rossetti’s tale of virginal sisters and the lure of goblin men and their irresistible fruit. “She sucked and sucked and sucked the more … she sucked until her lips were sore.”
Edmonton playwright/ actor Beth Graham had lingering memories of the poem’s lush strangeness when she was creating Pretty Goblins, premiering Thursday in a Workshop West Playwrights Theatre production directed by Brian Dooley.
“It’s all over the place! Wild! It just doesn’t follow any rules, any (conventional) rhyme,” she says of Rossetti’s compellingly un-conformist tale of Lizzie and Laura, and their encounter with a disturbing troupe of come-hither goblin fruit pedlars and their enchanted fruit elixirs. “And that’s one of the things I really liked about it; it’s always stayed in my brain….”
“Addiction and Victorian eroticism,” she says cheerfully. “And there’s a violence to it…. It’s nightmarish! I was very interested in all of that!”
At the centre of Pretty Goblins, which chronicles a heartbreaking declension into the chaos of addiction, is a pair of twins — one who “goes down that dark path of addiction” (as Graham puts it), one who has the agony of seeing that spiralling descent into a half-life.
“I knew I wanted to write about sisters! Maybe because I don’t have one and I’ve always wanted one!” ” Graham (who has an older brother) says, laughing. “I’ve always been fascinated by that relationship, and kind of romanticized it.”
“And I was interested in finding the closest family (bond) I could imagine…. When you’re twins, you start in the womb together. You hear the other person’s heartbeat; you know there’s another person with you always, a person who shares so much of your DNA. When are you ever alone?” There is, Graham thinks, “a weird magic” in that. “And I believe in it.”
The award-winning actor-turned-playwright has written about that alluring and unsettling doppelgänger effect before now. Victor and Victoria’s Terrifying Tale Of Terrible Things, a whimsically macabre Victorian thriller co-created by Graham and Nathan Cuckow, was inspired by the eerie Victorian visions of the illustrator/poet Edward Gorey and filmmaker Tim Burton. The title twins are irresistibly drawn to, and repelled by, fear when they discover a mysterious book. It hatched at the Fringe, and got its full-length unveiling in a 2012 Kill Your Television Theatre production.
There are fractious siblings in Graham’s The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, which got its Edmonton premiere at Theatre Network in 2014. In that heart-wrenching family drama, nominated for a Governor General’s Award, three siblings (a pair of high-contrast sisters and their awkward brother) are summoned to a family conference to hear the traumatic news that their mom Bernice, a widow in her ‘50s, has early-onset Alzheimer’s. Their reactions are strikingly different.
For bona fide, full-bodied dysfunction you just can’t beat a family, agrees Graham, whose acting career has taken her to a wide spectrum of Edmonton theatres. “There’s a different kind of decorum with friends….” Twin sisters “gave me licence to go all over the place.”
“There’s a kind of push and pull that happens with family. And with addiction. Where it’s ‘come here/ go away/ come here/ go away…. It’s isolating for everyone, not just for the addict. Everyone starts to protect themselves.”
What signifies, Graham thinks, is “how we move toward solitude; how we can learn to be alone. Sometimes it’s in a good way, sometimes in a really horrific way.”
Graham’s most travelled play The Drowning Girls (co-written with Daniela Vlaskalic and Charlie Tomlinson), has dark thoughts about that. It’s a fantasia on our misconceptions about love and married life, spun from the homicidal marital career of Edwardian-era polygamist/serial killer George Joseph Smith, who drowned a succession of brides in the bath. Graham reports, bemused, that currently The Drowning Girls, which has toured this country and played Off-Broadway, is chalking up multiple productions in Texas high schools, along with Catalyst’s Poe musical Nevermore (Graham was part of that ensemble cast). “Hmm, Edmonton, Texas….”
Pretty Goblins has had multiple transformations en route to opening night, explains Graham, a U of A theatre school acting grad who ventured into playwriting first at Nextfest (The Dirt On Mo, 2000). Its origins are in Graham’s time as playwright-in-residence at Workshop West; she continued honing it at the Citadel’s Playwrights Forum. .
“At first it was a four-person road trip with a set of sisters in it. But there was no end in sight after 100 pages. So I stopped and had a re-think….” Graham is a fearless re-thinker and serial re-writer of her work. She tried having a narrator, then figured it was “a writing cheat to figure out the story.” She took that out. She says Pretty Goblins has had “more drafts that I’ve ever written.”
The theme of addiction is powerfully central to both Goblin Market and Pretty Goblins. And, like a goblin pomegranate, the actual writing of the Rossetti poem, with its strange cadence, its asymmetrical rhymes and unpredictable rhythms, “just kind of seeped into” Pretty Goblins, says Graham, who’ll be onstage in Studio Theatre’s upcoming production of Ionesco’s Exit The King. “The poem has a presence in the play. Some actual lines put in an appearance….”
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Beth Graham
Directed by: Brian Dooley
Starring: Nadien Chu, Miranda Allen
Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through April 29
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)